Sitdown with Success: Bruce Summerville of Inline Lighting and Electric Supply

Sitdown with Success is a feature of the Huntsville Business Journal on entrepreneurs and their keys to success. This month’s subject is Bruce Summerville of Inline Lighting and Electric Supply.

Bruce Summerville: “… a lot of customers lean on some of our people for technical expertise. That’s really what distinguishes us from most of our competition.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

Bruce Summerville started Inline Electric Supply in 1988 after he and three co-workers were fired from their jobs at a Westinghouse supply branch here in Huntsville for plotting to start their own business. Today, there are 13 locations in Alabama, one in Tennessee and one in Georgia.

How did you come to Huntsville and what was it like in the early days starting a business?

My father was an electrical contractor in Georgia, so I grew up in the business. I was working as an electrician at an electrical supply house in Atlanta while going to school at Georgia Tech. When I came to Huntsville, I was only going to stay about six months and here I am over 30 years later.

After getting fired from Westinghouse, we started the business in my basement. Shortly afterward, we found this building on Bob Wallace. We were electrical only and operated out of the back of the building. Five years later, we moved into the front of the building, which gave us space to start a lighting showroom.

Our business model is Business-to-Business. We sell to installers, electrical contractors, and industrial plants. On the showroom side, we sell to builders or to homeowners building a home.

I’m sure with technology, the lighting industry has changed a lot over 30 years?

Oh yes. The advent of LED has completely changed the lighting industry, where seven years ago, it didn’t exist. On the residential side, it has migrated more slowly, but commercial, industrial, and outdoor lighting is radically different. It is 100 percent LED.

Before, commercial and industrial lighting was either fluorescent or what we called HID (high-intensity discharge), which was either mercury vapor or metal halide. You couldn’t control it. It was basically either off or on.

LED lighting is instantly on, very much controllable. It is all dimmable so there are a lot of controls involved.

What do you attribute most to your success?

We have significant inventories and keep a lot of product on hand; but definitely, the biggest thing is people.

We have a lot of people who are very knowledgeable about our industry and about our product and quite honestly, a lot of customers lean on some of our people for technical expertise. That’s really what distinguishes us from most of our competition.

In 2012, we went from three owners including myself to 260 owners when we went 100 percent employee owned.

Because of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, we went from $60 million to $160 million in revenue because we attracted a much better grade of people because they now have a stake in the success of the business.

I think the employee ownership has been a key advantage for us.

Has COVID-19 caused you any problems getting product?

Every day, 10 hours a day, we’re trying to find material. It is a constant struggle. Everything that comes out of Mexico is a continuous problem. A lot of the Asian product is coming back, but anything coming out of the Americas is still a struggle.

What would you tell somebody thinking about starting a lighting business?

It’s pretty capital intensive. If we were starting out today, it would be a struggle because it takes so much money to invest in inventory.

Starting a new business is challenging no matter what, and it is the same for this industry. But I would say hiring the best people will help you be successful.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced over the past 30 years, COVID included I suppose?

The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 was tough because the construction market was hit so hard.

When I talk to people who own restaurants and hotels, I feel almost ashamed to say it, but our business has been up about 10 percent this year. It is hard to brag about that when so many people are struggling, but I think we are certainly fortunate to be in the area of the country where there’s so much going on in terms of construction. That has helped carry our business through the pandemic.